Revisiting Russell on Cause

We discussed Bertrand Russell’s criticism of the first cause argument here. As I said there, he actually suggests, although without specifically making the claim, that there is no such thing as a cause, when he says:

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have.

This is absurd, and it is especially objectionable that he employs this method of insinuation instead of attempting to make an argument. Nonetheless, let me attempt to argue on Russell’s behalf for a moment. It is perhaps not necessary for him to say that there is no such thing as a cause. Suppose he accepts my account of cause as an explanatory origin. Note that this is not purely an objective relationship existing in the world. It includes a specific relationship with our mind: we call something a cause when it is not only an origin, but it also explains something to us. The relatively “objective” relationship is simply that of origin.

A series of causes, since it is also a series of explanations, absolutely must have a first, since otherwise all explanatory force will be removed. But suppose Russell responds: it does not matter. Sure, this is how explanations work. But there is nothing to prevent the world from working differently. It may be that origins, namely the relationship on the objective side, do consist of infinite series. This might make it impossible to explain the world, but that would just be too bad, wouldn’t it? We already know that people have all sorts of desires for knowledge that cannot be satisfied. A complete account of the world is impossible in principle, and even in practice we can only obtain relatively local knowledge, leaving us ignorant of remote things. So you might feel a need of a first cause to make the world intelligible, Russell might say, but that is no proof at all that there is any series of origins with a first. For example, consider material causes. Large bodies are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles, namely electrons, protons, and neutrons. These smaller particles are made of yet smaller particles called quarks. There is no proof that this process does not go on forever. Indeed, the series would cease to explain anything if it did, but so what? Reality does not have to explain itself to you.

In response, consider the two following theories of water:

First theory: water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

Second theory: every body of water has two parts, which we can call the first part and the second part. Each of the parts themselves has two parts, which we can call the first part of the first part, the second part of the first part, the first part of the second part, and the second part of the second part. This goes on ad infinitum.

Are these theories true? I presume the reader accepts the first theory. What about the second? We are probably inclined to say something like, “What does this mean, exactly?” But the very fact that the second theory is extremely vague means that we can probably come up with some interpretation that will make it true, depending in its details on the details of reality. Nonetheless, it is a clearly useless theory. And it is useless precisely because it cannot explain anything. There is no “causality” in the second theory, not even material causality. There is an infinite series of origins, but no explanation, and so no causes.

The first theory, on the other hand, is thought to be explanatory, and to provide material causes, because we implicitly suppose that we cannot go on forever in a similar way. It may be that hydrogen and oxygen are made up of other things: but we assume that this will not go on forever, at least with similar sorts of division.

But what if it does? It is true, in fact, that if it turns out that one can continue to break down particles into additional particles in a relatively similar manner ad infinitum, then “water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” will lose all explanatory force, and will not truly be a causal account, even in terms of material causes, even if the statement itself remains true. It would not follow, however, that causal accounts are impossible. It would simply follow that we chose the wrong account, just as one would be choosing wrongly if one attempted to explain water with the second theory above. The truth of the second theory is irrelevant; it is wrong as an explanation even if it is true.

As I have argued in a number of places, nature is not in the business of counting things. But it necessarily follows from this that it also does not call things finite or infinite; we are the ones who do that. So if you break down the world in such a way that origins are infinite, you will not be able to understand the world. That is not the world’s problem, but your problem. You can fix that by breaking down the world in such a way that origins are finite.

Perhaps Russell will continue to object. How do you know that there is any possible breakdown of the world which makes origins finite? But this objection implies the fully skeptical claim that nothing can be understood, or at least that it may turn out that nothing can be understood. As I have said elsewhere, this particular kind of skeptical claim implies a contradiction, since it implies that the same thing is known and unknown. This is the case even if you say “it might be that way,” since you must understand what you are saying when you say it might be that way.

9 thoughts on “Revisiting Russell on Cause

    • Most basically, while I haven’t discussed it yet on the blog, I think eternalism vs presentism is an example of what I’ve been calling a Kantian dichotomy. That is, both sides are getting at something right, but both sides are wrong where they reject the other. So to the degree that that author is arguing from the view that “eternalism is true and presentism is false,” I think they are simply mistaken.

      Second, my argument doesn’t depend on presentism or anything like presentism. It is an argument about how we think about causes. It applies even to the way that author thinks about causes. For example, they seem to suppose that laws of physics are patterns in spacetime that have no further explanation. I don’t think that is true, and it certainly is not what most scientists would think (they would think that those laws typically do have further explanations, whether we have reached them or not), but if it is true, then those laws would be first causes, albeit first formal causes. Because they would be unexplained explainers.


      • Hello,

        Thanks for your reply. It helped me to word out what other things bugs me with it.

        a) Per Hume and his defenders, we can’t really observe causation. All we can see is event A in spacetime, then event B in spacetime. We have no reason to posit that event A and event B are, say, chairs or dogs; we can stick with a sea of observed events, and claim that the world is “nothing more” but a huge set of random 4D events. While I can see that giving such an account restores formal causation, it doesn’t salvage efficient causation, and doesn’t even help final causation. How could you move there from our “normal” view?

        b) You mention that the opinion “laws are observed patterns” is not a dominant view; though, even though I’d like to sit with the majority, I can’t go further than a). I can’t build an argument for this, and fail to see how Aristote put his four causes correctly. I always end up gnawing on an objection, like “causation is only in the mind” or similar. Help?


  1. Generally, when we explain things, we use terms and concepts that are already understood, in order to understand something that we don’t know as well. However, since our knowledge always limited, even in well-understood concepts, our everyday explanations have a “preliminary” or “tentative” character to them. We agree to terminate our explanations at a certain point, though we could always investigate our concepts further, and ask for more explanation.

    Does the existence of even one of these tentative explanations (where it seems like we have a relatively good approximation of understanding) always imply a First Cause that grounds them in intelligibility? Your argument seems to be that for anything at all to be intelligible, there must be a First Cause of the universe. Is this accurate? I think the worry of people like Russell is that this seems to be making a very large claim from not very much data (though perhaps the claim isn’t as big as it seems?).


  2. Yes, I am arguing that if there is not a first cause, then even a “tentative explanation” is not even a partial explanation, and that this follows from what we mean by the word “explanation.”

    Consequently, it is not a “very large claim.” In this post I am pointing out that it is largely a question of how we divide things up. It is easy to see that in order for a thing to be understood at all, it has to be unified in some way: otherwise it would be random and meaningless. But notice that “being unified in some way” is not a large claim to make about anything. “Everything” has quite enough unity for us to understand what we mean by the word, so the fact that understanding requires some unity does not place large demands on the world. In a similar way, explaining things requires a causal order with a beginning, but this similarly does not place large demands on the world. We can divide up the world in various ways and there is nothing preventing us from dividing it up in such a way that causal orders have a beginning, just as we can abstain from dividing it up and take the whole thing as “one.”


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